X-Message-Number: 12354
Date: Tue, 31 Aug 1999 19:33:35 EDT
Subject: values are not arbitrary

Scott Badger suggested that we are free to create or assign meaning to our 
lives, and this has merit in the sense of rejecting the notion that some 
outside or "higher" "purpose" exists. But it does not really address the 
central question, which is

What ought one to do?

It is tempting-and many have succumbed to this temptation-to shrug and say 
that "ought" is arbitrary and beyond the purview of objective investigation 
or validation. My claim is that one can, rather, build a rigorous value 
system, which is centered on the self but nevertheless objective and not in 
any sense arbitrary. The basic tools are biology (including physics) and 

Naturally we must be extremely careful with words. "Values" and "goals" and 
"ends" and "means" and "purpose" and "right"-among many others-all have 
shifting meanings from time to time, person to person, and from one context 
to another. How to pin down language effectively can only develop gradually 
in the course of the investigation.

Your most basic want or need or value is feel-good (including, of course, the 
avoidance of feel-bad). But it is easy to become confused and discouraged 
when you try to go further. The ancient hedonists quickly lost favor, not 
because of any fundamental error, but because they could only apply their 
idea in an unrealistically simplistic way; they lacked the tools of biology 
and mathematics. 

Likewise, if someone attempts to develop the notion of feel-good as the 
foundation of value, he is likely quickly to become discouraged. After all, 
he might note, eating makes us feel good-but only temporarily. The same is 
true of many drives, for obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) utilitarian 
reasons. On the other hand, when rats were allowed to push buttons to 
stimulate their sexual pleasure centers via electrodes in the brain, they 
reportedly would keep it up until exhaustion. On the third hand, many things 
that make us feel good temporarily are bad for us in the longer run. On the 
fourth hand, many things that make us feel good in one way make us feel bad 
in another way. On the fifth hand, the degree of importance we assign to a 
goal does not seem well correlated with intensity of feeling; for example, 
many are more motivated by duty than by sensuality, even though the feelings 
involved in the latter may seem more intense. On the sixth hand, we are often 
more motivated by "intellectual" pleasures (including music?) than "fleshly" 
ones. But all this frustration is only a challenge, not a dead end.

The world is not random, because "randomness" ultimately is not a meaningful 
concept. Choices have consequences, and our mentation is understandable. What 
you "ought" to do means what you will do in light of the fullest available 
understanding of the world, yourself, and your situation. The "best" choices 
will only become apparent to those best equipped to investigate and 
calculate. The scientific attitude, and only that, is applicable to all areas 
of life and thought. (This does not mean that you always have to wear a lab 
jacket or frown a lot or never take a vacation from worry.) This is an 
unwelcome message, perhaps, and some who reject it now will luck out, but 
don't count on it. 

Robert Ettinger
Cryonics Institute
Immortalist Society

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